Capture of Bai Hassan and Avana Dome oil fields threatens Kurdish region's economic independence
Iraqi forces marched into the centre of Kirkuk on Monday and flew the national flag as divisions among Kurdish groups led to factions of Peshmerga refusing to fight in an act described as "treason" by their superiors.
Forces including the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Units took key facilities around Kirkuk, including the K1 military base, the military airport and oil fields, before a convoy of elite Iraqi counter-terrorism unit forces took control of the governorate building in central Kirkuk in the afternoon, meeting no resistance.
Some officials within the PUK collaborated in this betrayal against the Kurdistani nation
- Peshmerga general command
Late on Monday, Iraqi forces seized the key Bai Hassan and Avana Dome oil fields, which had been controlled by Peshmerga aligned to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
Patrick Osgood, a former Kurdistan bureau chief at Iraq Oil Report, said this could possibly decide the fate of the Kurdish push for independence.
"They contribute 280,000 barrels of oil a day to the KRG's total of 600,000 barrels a day," he explained.
"They are completely integral to the KRG’s economy and the KRG would sink very rapidly without that oil production."
As Iraqi forces advanced, Kurdish operators briefly shut some 350,000 barrels per day of oil output at two large Kirkuk fields, citing security concerns, oil ministry sources on both sides said.
But production resumed shortly thereafter following an Iraqi threat to seize fields under Kurdish management if they did not do so, according to the sources.
Iraqi forces also took control of the governor's office, which had been left deserted, the federal police chief said.
The Peshmerga forces on frontlines to the south of the city, mainly from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) faction of the Kurdish Regional Government, refused to fight and fled, leaving the way open for the Iraqi side.
Their withdrawal led to accusations of "treason" from KDP Peshmerga and statements that Baghdad would pay a "heavy price" for its actions.
In a statement, the general command of the Peshmerga told Middle East Eye: "We are saddened to say some officials within the PUK collaborated in this plot and betrayal against the Kurdistani nation. They deserted key points to Hashd and Iranian forces according to secret pre-arrangements."
Iraqi tanks were filmed destroying posters of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani in Kirkuk.
But it is the loss of the city, and that of oil and military installations to the north, that represents a huge setback for the KRG's plans of independence, as it loses key oil-producing territory it has held since ejecting Islamic State (IS) group from the area three years ago.
Baghdad and the KRG have been locked in a standoff after a Kurdish referendum backed independence. The PUK has since supported UN-backed plans for negotiations with Baghdad in exchange for dropping the referendum result, while the KDP has refused negotiations.
Thousands of civilians were reported to have fled Kirkuk in the face of the Iraqi advance, heading for Sulymaniyeh and Erbil. Other civilians were seen cheering on the Iraqi forces as they entered Kirkuk's southern outskirts.
"We're leaving because we're scared there will be clashes," said 51-year-old Chounem Qader.
At least 10 Kurdish fighters have died in limited clashes, according to officials.
Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave instructions that the Iraqi flag be hoisted in Kirkuk and other territories claimed by both the Iraqi government and the KRG.
Abadi said the military operations were necessary to "protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition" because of the referendum.
"We call upon all citizens to cooperate with our heroic armed forces, which are committed to our strict directives to protect civilians in the first place, and to impose security and order, and to protect state installations and institutions," he said.
The US-led coalition against IS called for dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities.
— Campbell MacDiarmid (@CampbellMacD) October 16, 2017
"All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy, IS, in Iraq," Robert White, a commanding general in the coalition, said.
US President Donald Trump expressed disappointment the two sides were fighting.
"We don't like the fact that they're clashing. We're not taking sides," Trump told reporters at the White House.
"We've had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds as you know and we've also been on the side of Iraq, even though we should have never been there in the first place. We should never have been there. But we're not taking sides in that battle."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.